Published in The Weekend Independent on 13 January 2012

Feeding the poor - Old Dhaka in the 1980s. Photo courtesy of Susan Elahi

Susan said that she was unprepared for another aspect of living in Bangladesh: family life.

She said, “I didn’t understand the importance of family in Bangladeshi culture before I came [in 1981].  Some of the very traditional obligations to family were still observed.  Having lived alone… it was an adjustment for me to report where I was going and to ask permission.”

However Susan said that her American father “always asked his parents for permission to go out, even as an adult.  If he was at his mother’s house, he would politely ask her permission as a form of respect.  So with my father as a model, it didn’t seem such a big departure from my own personal experiences.  It’s quite nice to give parents that respect.”

Unlike the majority of Bangladeshi wives, who typically live with their husband’s parents after marriage, Susan said she was never requested to dutifully massage her father-in-law’s feet.  Her mother-in-law, said Susan, “for the most part treated me as a honoured guest.”  What’s more, “Over time, [the Elahi family] came to rely on my tuna casserole after a meaty Eid.  They descended on it the first time I made it – it was great.”

The ever adaptable Susan also makes a pertinent observation that is applicable to any long term relationship.  She said, “The adjustments you make in married life are transferable wherever you live.  If you were a single woman living alone and didn’t go straight from parent to husband, a marriage to anyone, anywhere, is therefore a huge adjustment.  It’s hard to differentiate between the cultural adjustments and those that naturally occur when you enter a married relationship.”

At any rate, Susan said there were few opportunities to seek permission before heading out.

The Elahi's balcony in Old Dhaka. Photo courtesy of Susan Elahi

“I didn’t get out and about very much, due to the difficulty of travel.  Believe it or not, the traffic jams in Old Dhaka used to be worse than they are today.  If someone needed a lift from Old Dhaka, it was impossible to give them a ride and return home within 24 hours.  Traffic stood at a standstill for two hours straight.  Things move a little now, because trucks are not allowed to use the roads until after 10pm and a number of new roads have been built.”

Susan has noticed that over the years, as traffic in the capital has grown ever more congested, the patience and politeness that used to exist – even in Old Dhaka’s gridlocked streets – has completely disappeared.

“I see a lot of road rage and people are hugely impatient. That’s a difference that’s not for the better.”

However one form of transport Susan constantly availed of in Old Dhaka was the rickshaw, while in the company of her beloved sisters-in-law.

“I often went shopping with my sisters-in-law and I’d listen to them bantering back and forth.  We used to bargain hard in those days.  I learned how to do that, as well as learning Bangla. My youngest sister-in-law was still in high school when I arrived – I was so lucky to have her at home.  She was such a wonderful person and we became really close.  I dragged her everywhere – we were in a rickshaw most days, going out and about.  We also watched “Dallas” in English and what she couldn’t understand, I explained. It was so much fun. I miss her terribly.”

In a short amount of time, Susan and Ehsan lost “the core group of characters in our family.

“My sister-in-law died of cancer five years ago.  She never married and stayed at home to care for her parents.  Then five months after my sister-in-law died, my mother-in law also died of cancer.  A year ago this summer, my father-in-law passed away.  The cause was old age complications, but a great deal of it was a broken heart.

“It’s very tough to cope with the loss,” she said with downcast eyes.

While Susan’s eldest sister-in-law has a young family in Baridhara, her father-in-law’s younger sister and her husband are retired and currently live in the Old Dhaka house, which Susan still regularly visits.  As an artist, it’s also a source of inspiration – her paintings beautifully depict its old world charms.

She said, “After all these years, when I go back to the house on weekends, the shopkeepers say ‘Salaam’ when I pass by.”

Susan said the sense of community in Old Dhaka was strong – and continues to be so.

The children on the rooftop. Photo courtesy of Susan Elahi

She said, “We had to pass Dhaka University to reach our house and during a period of political turmoil [which frequently emanated from the university] I was coming back with my daughter from playgroup. I understood people saying they were going to set fire to cars.  It was such a worry.  But as my daughter and I made our way through the streets, shopkeepers in the old city waved us in. They were quickly pulling their shutters down but were willing to give us sanctuary because they saw me pass by every day.”

Susan said this was far from being a one-off – both the turmoil and the kindness bestowed to her.

Susan’s admiration for the community she was once a part of is still very much alive.  One of her most lasting impressions took place in the late 1980s, which she describes as “the epitome of the Bangladeshi spirit.”

“I was watching people queuing for water on an Old Dhaka street.  They were standing in a foot of horrible, stagnant floodwater, carrying any sort of jug or bucket they could find. Everyone in that line was smiling, talking; encouraging one another.  It was most incredible.”

She paused for a moment before adding, “Compare that with how people reacted to Hurricane Katrina. They were so stunned by the hardship they just sat down in the dirt and did nothing.”

This article concludes the story of Susan Elahi’s life in Dhaka.

Click here to return to Part 1 – “We came to Dhaka for six months but stayed 30 years:” an extraordinary expat from Kansas

Click here to return to Part 2 – “Dhaka was a completely different place back then.”